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Australia’s historical record on arms control is now at stake

Image credit: New York National Guard (Flickr: Creative Commons)

In June 2014, Australia proudly joined nations around the world as it ratified the landmark Arms Trade Treaty. This treaty provided the first ever legally binding framework to regulate the sale of conventional arms, and introduced measures to prevent states from selling weapons to terrorist groups and human rights abusers. In December 2014, the Treaty entered into force after being ratified by 50 states, marking the culmination of a two-decades long campaign by civil society and human rights organisations.
At the time, Australia was commended by numerous countries around the world for its leadership on arms control issues. The year before, Australia had led the charge towards the first ever UN Security Council resolution on small arms and light weapons, Resolution 2117, in its capacity as the acting United Nations Security Council President. Australia had also helped establish the UN Trust Facility for Supporting Cooperation on Arms Regulation (UNSCAR), which funds projects to support the implementation of the Arms Trade Treaty.
But today, Australia’s reputation on arms control may be at stake. It has now emerged that Australia has authorised the sale of military equipment to Saudi Arabia from Australian firms. The details of the sale are not being released, and the government is citing ‘commercial-in-confidence rules’ in defence of its silence.
According to Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia has engaged in a ‘wide array of violations of international law... in some cases amounting to war crimes’ over the last two years in its bombing campaigns in Yemen. Although violations of international law have been committed by ‘all parties to the conflict’, the Arms Trade Treaty explicitly prohibits a State Party from authorising any transfer of conventional arms if it has knowledge that they would be used in attacks against civilians or in other war crimes.
In this regard, Amnesty International has documented ‘at least 34 airstrikes by the Saudi Arabia led-coalition that appear to have violated international humanitarian law, killing at least 494 civilians, including 148 children’. Similarly, Human Rights Watch has documented ‘62 apparently unlawful airstrikes’, including on markets and funerals. Given this, it appears that Australia may be in direct violation of the Arms Trade Treaty—to which it is a State Party.
Australia is not the only country that would be guilty of this. According to a senior executive at Oxfam International, the United Kingdom has also ‘switched from being an “enthusiastic backer” of the Arms Trade Treaty to “one of the most significant violators”’. Together with Australia, the United Kingdom worked for years in leading efforts to build international support for the Arms Trade Treaty. However, this appeared to go straight out the window when the United Kingdom faced its first real test vis-a-vis the Arms Trade Treaty in Saudi Arabia.
Already at the very start of Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in 2015, the United Kingdom’s then-defence secretary Philip Hammond pledged: ‘We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat’. Indeed, since then, the United States and the United Kingdom have together transferred more than US$5 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia. Moreover, this has occurred despite the fact that US and UK military officials are in the command and control centre for Saudi airstrikes, and have access to the lists of targets.
In the UK, the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia is now facing a legal challenge in the UK’s High Court. In addition, the Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn has called for the country to ‘halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia immediately’.

However, no such campaigns have occurred in Australia. When asked about this issue earlier in March, Penny Wong, the Foreign Affairs spokesperson for the ALP, noted that Labor is 'deeply concerned' about the conflict and called for de-escalation, but did not call for an arms embargo. By contrast, Senator Scott Ludlam, the Greens spokesperson on Foreign Affairs, has stated that he 'can’t think of a better example of the need for a broad based arms embargo'.

A recent letter from Human Rights Watch to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has demanded that Australia 'suspend the sale or transfer of any weapons or materiel to Saudi Arabia until it curtails its unlawful attacks in Yemen'. Since then, Australia has made an announcement that it will be providing $10 million in aid assistance for Yemen’s starved. Whilst this is undoubtedly a significant contribution that has been welcomed by human rights organisations, this also means that Australia is ironically providing both arms and aid at the same time.
As noted in the Sydney Morning Herald, Australia’s sales to Saudi Arabia comes within a year of the Dutch Parliament voting to ban military exports to Saudi Arabia on humanitarian grounds.
International law skeptics have long argued that international law has little power to constrain powerful states. Moreover, in the case of the Arms Trade Treaty, it has been argued that the Treaty acts as a cover for powerful states to continue selling weapons while maintaining an appearance of complying with international law.
Until recently, Australia’s experience served as a powerful counter to this narrative. Australia had successfully lobbied for the international arms frameworks and had led successful disarmament initiatives. One such example is Australia’s mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), which is set to conclude in June. Here, Australia led a unique disarmament program that has helped restore peace and security.
Now, however, Australia appears to be changing tack and is likely acting in blatant violation of the Arms Trade Treaty. As such, Australia is putting not only its own reputation and historical record at risk, but also the very foundations of the Arms Trade Treaty that it helped create.
Shmuel Levin is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.
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